Home » Top of his class and hungry for more, a young refugee battles the oddsNews »

Top of his class and hungry for more, a young refugee battles the odds

Young refugee from South Sudan striving for an education sits in a classroom taking notes surrounded by his classmates

Young South Sudanese refugee, Gift, attends school in the Biringi Refugee Settlement. © UNHCR/John Wessels

On the run from South Sudan’s civil war, a boy named Gift is determined to continue his education. But his ingenuity, brilliance and determination may not be enough to keep him in school.

Gift, 14, has been top of his class for the past three years. That may not be enough to keep him in school.

“When I grow up, I would like to become a teacher. I would like this job because I like to help those who have less knowledge,” he said of the ambition that has driven him forward against the odds.

Those odds were considerable. Gift fled the war that was ravaging his homeland, South Sudan, a conflict that had claimed the life of his father. Determined to succeed, he learned French from scratch and even designed his own light from spare parts of a broken solar lamp so he could study at night.

Despite all his hard work, a huge cloud hangs over Gift’s future. The talented teenager is in his last year of primary school in the eastern stretches of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where secondary school places are few and far between.

“The war makes a lot of people suffer – I had to quit school because of the war. When I found out I was going back to school, it made me happy,”

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency helps refugee children such as Gift go to school by providing cash grants that help families to pay fees, and to purchase schoolbooks, supplies and uniforms. But both funds and opportunities are limited, particularly at secondary school level, which means Gift and thousands of other South Sudanese child refugees may have to call a premature halt to their studies.

Gift and his uncle – who became his legal guardian after his father was killed and he lost touch with his mother – sought safety in Biringi settlement, in the DRC, in 2016.

The boy well remembers his first day in Uboko primary school, where 800 local Congolese and refugee children study together after the school was rehabilitated by UNHCR. He was excited and thankful for a new opportunity to learn again.

“The war makes a lot of people suffer – I had to quit school because of the war. When I found out I was going back to school, it made me happy,” he recalled with a smile.

Democratic Republic of Congo. Helping South Sudanese children attend school

“I study a lot and surround myself with friends that also have high academic ambitions. I want to pursue my studies until university, to become a teacher.” © UNHCR/John Wessel

Democratic Republic of Congo. Helping South Sudanese children attend school

Gift makes his way to school in the Biringi Refugee Settlement. © UNHCR/John Wessels

Democratic Republic of Congo. Helping South Sudanese children attend school

Gift has been the best student in his class for the past three years, excelling at French. © UNHCR/John Wessels

Democratic Republic of Congo. Helping South Sudanese children attend school

Gift places a solar charger outside to charge his self-made lamp so he can study at night. © UNHCR/John Wessels

Democratic Republic of Congo. Helping South Sudanese children attend school

Gift studies at night with the aid of his solar charged self-made lamp. © UNHCR/John Wessels

Mastering French, the main language of instruction in the DRC, was achieved by attending language courses provided by UNHCR – with Gift even winning a province-wide spelling contest.

Then he had a practical problem: no electricity meant he had no light by which to study at home at night. His solution? To design his own solar-powered lamp. “I had to build this,” he said, holding out a flimsy light made of three bulbs and a solar battery held together by tape.

As South Sudanese children continue to seek refuge in Congolese territory, the education gap is only increasing. Only 4,400 out of 12,500 South Sudanese children in the DRC have access even to primary education. Until recently, they had no secondary opportunities whatsoever.

In 2019, UNHCR started a small programme to enrol refugees in secondary school. It also helps to construct and refurbish school buildings.

Even so, of the more than 6,000 South Sudanese secondary-age refugees, a staggering 92 per cent still do not go to school.

“It would be horrible if I couldn’t go to secondary school, … There should be a way for everyone to study.”

Gift knows the odds are stacked against him. And he fears he will be regarded as worthless in the eyes of both his host community and his fellow refugees if he cannot get an education. It is vital to both his hopes of becoming a teacher, he says, and of becoming a voice for others in his position.

Yet he simply cannot imagine life without education. “It would be horrible if I couldn’t go to secondary school,” he said. “There should be a way for everyone to study.”

Ann Encontre, UNHCR’s Regional Representative in the DRC, said there are “extraordinary talents” among the young refugees she has met. “When you talk to them, you see how eager they are to learn.”

Secondary school gives refugee adolescents a sense of purpose, a vision of the person they can become, and the knowledge that will one day help them rebuild their homes, she adds.

“The alternative to school is waiting around with no clear options for the future. This is why we are doing all we can to keep them in school.”